Karzai succeeds in getting weak parliament speaker elected

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 27, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai managed Sunday to avoid the election of a strong opposition politician to the post of speaker of Afghanistan's parliament, after his supporters and critics had wrangled over the position for a month.

The West had hoped that the new parliament could provide a vital check on Karzai, with the Afghan leader increasingly distanced from his international backers, who regard him as power-grabbing and unpredictable.

Karzai had feared that the West would push parliament to impeach him, according to several politicians who know the Afghan president well, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The speaker position would be key to any such move. Western officials often blame many of the failures of the mission in Afghanistan on Karzai.

Separately, the Taliban kept up its murderous campaign against civilian targets, bombing a dog fight Sunday in the southern province of Kandahar, killing eight civilians and two police officers, Afghan officials said. Analysts and officials believe that the Taliban has changed tactics to go after "soft" civilian targets, possibly in response to an aggressive offensive by U.S.-led international forces.

Also Sunday, an Afghan government investigation confirmed claims from locals that 65 civilians had been mistakenly killed in a recent airstrike in the country's northeast, said Shahzada Masoud, a member of the probe team. The charge is denied by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force. Civilian casualties are a cause of deep friction between the coalition and the Karzai government.

After 16 sessions debating the issue in parliament, and 18 different candidates, lawmakers finally chose a former jihadi commander from the Uzbek minority — Abdul Raouf Ibrahimi — as a compromise candidate for parliament speaker. Crucially for Karzai, the job did not go to a charismatic opponent, who might be able to rally members of the legislature against him.

Karzai's main aim was to prevent the ex-speaker, Mohammed Younus Qanooni, from being re-elected, after the previous parliament provided the Afghan leader with troubling opposition. September elections had elected a parliament that threatens even more opposition. It was not convened by Karzai until late January.

"Karzai's goal was to prevent Qanooni from the speakership and he reached that goal, so he'll be satisfied," said Farhad Azimi, a member of parliament from the northern province of Balkh. "The new speaker doesn't have much of a reputation, and he will act conservatively."

Ibrahimi is an obscure figure who's been involved with several different political groups, suggesting his malleability. Ibrahimi fought with Hezb-e Islami during the jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a group that is currently one of the three main insurgent factions battling Western forces in Afghanistan. He later joined Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, but is now associated again with the political wing of Hezb-e Islami. He has also backed, at various times, the presidential election campaigns of both Karzai and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

"We've got a relatively weak speaker, who's not firmly in the opposition. He seems to have worked with everyone, so he's perfect" for consensus, said one Western diplomat in Kabul, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the topic publicly. "He'll be much easier to push around than Qanooni, much more influence-able."

Karzai had backed Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf for the speaker position, a choice that seemed designed to rile the West. Sayyaf is a radical Islamist accused of gross human rights violations. Western countries would not have been able to work with Sayyaf, it is thought, on impeachment or any other agenda.

Karzai retains a further lever over parliament, a special court that he instituted that's looking into allegations of vote-rigging at the last elections and may yet disqualify some lawmakers.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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